Applying the THIRA to Special Events: A Framework for Capabilities-Based Planning Adoption in Local Governments

Daniel Bradley


Local officials planning for disasters at the local level must make risk-informed judgments about what capability is needed to defend against known threats and hazards while remaining adaptable to address the unforeseen. However, risk assessment tools are imperfect and sometimes not available to local governments. Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8) and the THIRA process have sought to address this gap through application of a variant of military capabilities-based planning (CBP) framework to the homeland security enterprise, but implementation has been difficult. CBP is a method of system analysis that focuses on identifying and assessing the necessary elements required for a specific outcome under user-defined metrics of performance.[1] CBP applies abstraction to an array of complex threat scenarios to identify essential capabilities required to address a comprehensive range of unique operational challenges. Differing from military planning environments, local government efforts with CBP are complicated by a gap in analytical capacity and local disaster assets diffused among many different organizations. This difference has proven to be an obstacle to full adoption of CBP across governmental jurisdictions.


The implementation challenges for the National Preparedness System’s Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) and its CBP framework are that disasters vary across the United States, and despite reducing complexity through focusing on core capabilities, risk assessment and performance measurement competencies are not widely available nor incentivized to be developed among stakeholders at the state and local level.[2] Many jurisdictions reported in a 2014 study that the THIRA is the only risk and capability assessment performed at the local level, and is done primarily because it is tied to securing preparedness grant funds.[3] Moreover, respondents within the same study indicated a preference for less complex assessment methodologies and favored locally developed approaches.[4]

In parallel to the homeland security enterprise, military CBP applies a similar analysis framework as the THIRA, but differs in that the strategic focus of the exercise is often placed on mission-level, not full-scale conflict scenarios.[5] In applying this scaled relationship to national preparedness, disasters scenarios can be substituted for full-scale war scenarios but this relationship lacks an analog for a civilian-side equivalent to “mission.”

For domestic preparedness, special events can offer an analog to the military’s CBP’s term, mission. The characteristics of special events: frequency of occurrence, necessity for risk-informed protection and response asset deployments, media attention, required interdisciplinary planning, and potential for real-world consequences, appear to have an analogous equivalency with mission. This equivalency suggests that FEMA’s work on PPD-8 and the THIRA, challenged by the issue of low competency and incentive in practicing CBP can potentially be addressed by inculcating elements of CBP and the THIRA into special event planning.


A comparison was conducted between the FEMA THIRA methodology and the analytical architecture of a CBP framework developed for the Secretary of Defense in 2002. This assessment mapped the similarity between Paul K. Davis’s CBP framework and FEMA’s THIRA methodology, and found congruence, as well as options for expanding the THIRA’s CBP approach. Next, special event planning processes and interagency dynamics were explored and validated as an approximation of jurisdiction-wide disaster planning environments. A THIRA special event planning framework that completes a full-CBP cycle was synthesized containing the following steps: assess threats and risks; give them context; construct capability targets; assess options and capability; choose options; and apply the results and measurement. This adapted THIRA framework completes an initial Department of Defense (DOD) CBP sequence in the context of local government planning for a special event, beginning with an initial risk assessment and concluding when deployed resources are demobilized from the mass gathering venue.


Three policy options were developed that evaluate the adapted THIRA framework’s implementation in the following scenarios: no adoption, use in a local government-planned event, and adoption within a national special security event (NSSE). The metrics selected to evaluate these policy options were drawn from literature examining the best practices for CBP implementation and collaboration-enabling factors within emergency management planning. High degrees of top leader participation, substantial time for interagency collaboration on a specific mission, opportunities to partition all the required core capabilities for a mission, and integrating a CBP champion were identified to have positive effects on successfully implementing CBP. From this analysis, option three, integrate the THIRA into a NSSE planning process, was identified as the most desirable policy option for implementation, as it maximized the values of each metric more so than other options.


NSSE’s are high-interest events that require managing large budgets, conducting substantial interagency planning, and specifying the need for large amounts of local equipment and security apparatus. NSSE planning timeframes typically operate in the 6–12-month range and draw notable media attention, both before and during the event. Additionally, the current NSSE planning framework is comprised of functional subcommittees that address specific categories of tasks, which mirror the CBP approach of decomposing scenarios into unique operational challenges and then into discrete envelopes of capability.

While NSSEs provide a notable set of enabling factors for implementing CBP for real-world events, they occur very infrequently and impact only a limited set of cities and states a year.[6] NSSEs for political conventions shift from city to city, which means that local governments may practice CBP once for a NSSE and then lack the component incentives or enabling factors to continue using CBP.

It is also likely that full adoption of CBP is not possible given the variation and diffusion of government organizations at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial level, which contrasts with the (slightly) less complex military organizations within the DOD.[7] This observed variation does not suggest that CBP adoption for the homeland security enterprise (HSE) should be discontinued. Davis notes that modern military planning has had decades and large conflicts to iterate and test planning approaches, whereas the HSE’s experience with CBP began in 2004.[8] Despite the lack of frequency in applying the THIRA CBP framework to a NSSE, it may represent an opportunity for FEMA to study CBP application in a real-world disaster-analogous setting.



[1] Doug Hales and Paul Chouinard, Implementing Capability Based Planning within the Public Safety and Security Sector: Lessons from the Defence Experience (Ottawa, Ontario: Defence R&D Canada—Centre for Security Science, 2011), 1.

[2] Jerome H. Kahan, “Preparedness Revisited: W(h)ither PPD-8?,” Homeland Security Affairs 10, no. 2 (February 2014): 8,

[3] Seung-Ho An et al., Integrated Risk Management at the Local Level: The Gap between Theory and Practice (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University, 2014), 16–19,

[4] An et al., 16–19.

[5] Paul K. Davis, Analytic Architecture for Capabilities-Based Planning, Mission-System Analysis, and Transformation (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2002), 21–28.

[6] Shawn Reese, National Special Security Events: Fact Sheet, CRS Report No. R43522 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2017), 1–3,

[7] The phrase, “federal, state, local, tribal and territorial level’ is drawn from FEMA planning literature and refers to federal disaster planning approaches including the whole of government. For more info, see Federal Emergency Management Agency, NIMS Implementation Objectives for Local, State, Tribal and Territorial Jurisdictions, 2018 Update (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2018), 1,

[8] Sharon L. Caudle, “Homeland Security and Capabilities-Based Planning: Improving National Preparedness” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2009), 19–26.

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